Obituary - Eric Boswell, 1921-2009

18th December 2009 at 00:00

Ring out those bells tonight: Eric Boswell, composer of "Little Donkey", the perennial favourite of school carol concerts, has died.

Mr Boswell, whose clip-clop melody tells the story of the donkey that carried the holy family into Bethlehem, was an intensely private physics lecturer, otherwise best known for a succession of comic songs written in Geordie dialect.

Born Eric Simpson in 1921, he was the son of a Sunderland tailor. From the age of seven, he took regular music lessons and later studied under the organist and choirmaster of a local church.

But he also developed a parallel interest in physics, going on to take a degree in electrical engineering at Sunderland Technical College. With the outbreak of the Second World War, he worked for the Marconi electronics company, dismantling the radar systems of captured Luftwaffe aeroplanes.

After the war, however, he began to spend more time composing. For more than a decade, he wrote classical and light music. His most notable achievement during this time was winning a Brighton music festival in 1950.

Then, in 1959, he decided to write a Christmas song. "I racked my brains to think of aspects of the Christmas story that hadn't been sung about," he said in a later interview. "And I came up with the idea of the donkey riding into Bethlehem."

"Little Donkey" became a Christmas hit that year, for both Gracie Fields and the Beverley Sisters. Later recordings were made by performers including Vera Lynn and the St Winifred's school choir. Other, less famous, school choirs have also recorded and released versions of the song. Most recently, it was covered by Patti Page in 2002.

Mr Boswell specifically wrote the tune as "a simple song for children to sing". But 61-year-old Gracie Fields struggled nonetheless with the range of the original version. So Mr Boswell simplified the song further to make it span only a single octave.

Music executives then asked him to modify the waltz beat of the song: "Donkeys don't waltz, Eric," he was told. So he changed the timing, giving it a slow, clip-clop rhythm.

Its simplicity and its plodding beat, along with the animal theme, helped to popularise the carol in schools both in Britain and around the world: it has been translated into a number of different languages.

He published the song under the pseudonym Eric Boswell, the surname taken from Boswells Avenue, the Chelmsford street on which he had lived during the war. He was a deeply private man, divulging little about his personal life. But, in recognition of the success that "Little Donkey" brought him, he did eventually change his name officially to Boswell.

His only other mainstream hit was "Love Walked In", recorded in the 1960s by Matt Monro. But he became increasingly irritated by the "awful, discordant" pop music of the 1960s and grew homesick for his native North East. He moved back to Northumberland and concentrated on his career as a physics lecturer, taking a job at Sunderland Polytechnic.

He did continue to write songs, however - mostly humorous numbers about the North East, often in Geordie dialect. These included "The Social Security Waltz", "Supermarket Blues", "There's More To Life Than Women and Beer" and "I've got a Little Whippet". "I believe if we leave behind a legacy of laughter, then that's as near as we're likely to get to immortality," he said.

Mr Boswell eventually became the musical director of Geordierama, a BBC regional radio show. Eventually, this spawned an annual live event at Newcastle City Hall and regularly featured his anthemic song "Tyneside's Where I Come From".

A CD of Mr Boswell's best-known songs was recorded this year to mark the 50th anniversary of "Little Donkey". But, while he attended all the recording sessions, he was never to see the release of the CD. He died on November 29, shortly before the season with which his most famous work is associated.

Eric Boswell was predeceased by his first and second wives, but is survived by his three sons, Ian, David and Tony, and three grandsons.

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